Rock N’ Roll Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, a naive young scholar wrote a Master’s Thesis on Walter Benjamin and Opera. In the course of preparing said thesis, the scholar found herself gravitating toward Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte coloratura, the Queen of the Night. The final product did not delve into her initial concerns about the figure, as the committee was far more interested in the theory of allegory than in the reinvention of the figure of the witch-woman in Mozart and later operas. Naive though she was, said scholar was not stupid and chose to complete the thesis on allegory and opera, rather than following the development of the Queen in later texts.

So, the Queen has been resting quietly for some 7 or 8 years now, and I think she’s ready to make her return. Sort of.

Queen, if you’ve never met her (and you should), is a rather complex and, let’s be charitable, unpredictable character. During the intermission, she undergoes a transformation that moves her from what first appears to be a worried, if controlling, mother-figure to a manipulative bitch, the BPD mother from hell. She manages to embody the mother/bitch role in a single opera, though admittedly, this could be a failing on the part of the librettist, Emil Schikaneder, as much as a plot device: if you pay too careful attention, the Queen’s character makes no sense. She is, of course, a coloratura role, and such roles are conventionally associated with the psychologically unstable, but the transformation between acts is almost untenable, even by coloratura standards (heh, that was a fun phrase).

The figure of the Queen as damaged mother reappears throughout opera’s major female roles; again and again we meet the figure of a fallen or defeated woman, many of whom embody the most beautiful tones of their respective works. Catherine Clement, in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women, associates the gorgeous songs with the elimination of language for the women, particularly for Queen: “She speaks a language that terrifies and seduces, but do we have any idea at all what she is saying? She speaks not at all to reason…Coloratura is repetition stretched out on a flashy melody, in a register where the voice can do no more than emit—meaningless syllables, note after note” (73). Attempts to communicate while disassociated from languages are endemic to feminist text—see Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” for a particularly noteworthy example. As for opera’s women, we watch the figure follow Benjamin’s prediction: “Prostitution…appears to contain the possibility of surviving in a world in which the objects of our most intimate use have increasingly become mass-produced…the woman herself becomes an object which is mass produced” (40). By the time we arrive at Berg’s Lulu, the bold figure is a prostitute.

So, I was thinking about the Queen and wondering recently about the imagined-female figures in 80s rock, where we find a great many completely voiceless, mass-produced women, and it dawned on me that she’s still around in my musical habits. I’m going to begin with the lyrics by all-male bands, but I will turn to the female groups as well, eventually (I never worked through female-composed operas…I need to do that sometime). I’ve identified several figures within 80’s rock, but I’ll begin with the one who seemed most prevalent and who charted highest: the Fallen Angel. She’s not a new addition to our modern consciousness; the good girl gone wrong (even Queen follows that trajectory in her attempts to keep Pamina from doing so) is endemic to literature and music: the simple soul taken advantage of, the prostitute with the heart of gold, and so forth. The 1980’s glam period of rock is replete with mythologies that are at once misogynistic and homophobic, and yet simultaneously androgynous. One myth particularly omnipresent in post-punk glam lyrics and videos is that of the “fallen angel”: the sweet young girl (usually Midwestern) who arrives in the big city (usually Los Angeles) only to have her dreams of stardom corrupted. We’ll look at three sets of lyrics and videos from the period: Ratt’s “Dance,” Poison’s “Fallen Angel” (duh), and Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle*.” Scores of others exit—feel free to suggest.

The first of the standard markers is the establishment of the innocence/naivety of the featured “angel,” who is most often a “small town girl” with big dreams about (usually) Hollywood. Take young Susie, from Poison’s “Fallen Angel,” who begins her video career at her family dinner table. She is a stereotypical pretty blond, looking for a way out of what is, at least according to the lyrics, her small town life. The lyrics describe her initial arrival as “she stepped off the bus out on to the city streets/Just a small town girl with her whole life packed in the suitcase by her feet” (Poison). Her innocence is further confirmed by her apparent bafflement in the face of the Hollywood’s reality: “But somehow the lights didn’t/ Shine as bright as the did/On her Mama’s TV screen” (Poison). The term “mama” and the failure to recognize the difference between the real city and the imagined one serve to paint her as the innocent arrival. Ratt’s angel has a similar arrival, coming off a “Greyhound bus,” the young woman is “not a big city girl” but has “dreams to make it big” and “have [her]self some fun” (Ratt). Unlike Poison, Ratt’s video does not feature the Angel (though it may be featuring the “fallen” ones; the video is primarily about the band, not the song’s story); instead, the video features scores of women bouncing to Ratt’s joyful beat, all the while being ogled by the men in the club. Of the three narratives, Guns N’ Roses presents the most unusual motif; in the video, the fallen angel is Axl himself, rather than the young woman referenced in the song’s lyrics. Unlike “Fallen Angel” and “Dance,” “Welcome to the Jungle” does not specifically make reference to the innocence of the angel tempted by the city, though she is apparently a fairly recent arrival, given that the lyrics suggest that she “can taste the bright lights/but [she] won’t get them for free” (Guns N’ Roses). The video, on the other hand, prominently features Axl’s “hick” arrival, complete with hayseed in teeth; Susie (no, I don’t know why I insist on calling her that***) likewise arrives in Hollywood, right off the bus. The images are remarkably similar, so much so that I would love to suggest that the Guns were poking fun at Poison, but the video for “Jungle” was shot nearly a year before “Fallen Angel.”

The second marker is the city itself and its deceptive practices that will eventually corrupt the angel. Poison suggests that the imaginary images that lured Susie to Hollywood in the first place collapse quickly, leaving her aware that “The work seems harder/ the days seem longer/ than she’d ever thought they’d be” (Poison). Later, she “turns her back on her best friends and let[s] her family slip away,” while becoming “just like a lost soul/so caught up in the Hollywood scene…hiding all of her pain/trading her memories for fortune and fame” (Poison). The city, acting the part of Mephisto, draws her in first with the television images and keeps her with the “scene”: the “parties and limousines” (Poison). Ratt’s girl appears to fare somewhat better, though loneliness is similarly present: “It’s getting late to worry ’bout a date/Still you have no one/Twist of fate you know it’s too late/you turn on everyone” (Ratt). Of course, this angel need only “Dance” to eliminate her loneliness, whereas Susie ends up (in the video) riding off with motorcycle-taxi driver Bret. In “Jungle,” the city’s deceptions are omnipresent, and there appears to be little chance of escape (both in the lyrics and the video) except through madness or–perhaps–drug-induced escape (the video opens with drug-dealer Izzy attempting to sell to young Axl and ends with Axl, now all glammed up, walking away from a bank of TVs–yes, for the first MTV generation, TVs were quite the deceptive little devils, weren’t they?– that had formerly been featured behind a drunken Slash). The city, in “Jungle” makes any desire readily available (as is apparently true in “Fallen Angel”), providing “whatever you may need/if you got the money honey/we got your disease” (GNR). Later, we hear that the city will “make you bleed” and you’ll “learn to live like an animal” before it “bring[s] you down” (GNR).
As the Mephistophelean images of the city might suggest, the Faust-angels can be redeemed or damned, based on choices they make or the overall assumptions of each lyricist and videographer. Susie, once again attired in her small-town sweater, is apparently rescued by motorcycle riding Bret (well, perhaps rescued–I think we’re meant to see him as the prince, rather than the devil. He is wearing red and sunglasses, after all), which flies in the face of the lyrics, wherein “when her ship came in/she wasn’t there and it just wouldn’t wait” (Poison). Ratt’s dancer apparently needs only to dance, where she’ll “never be alone” (Ratt). “Jungle,” of course, ends with a threat–that “you’re gonna die,” and the transformation (via electroshock therapy) of the Axl-angel seems to suggest the same. The Axl-angel we initially meet, who refuses Izzy-dealer’s advances, is apparently dead and gone, replaced by the harder and more made-up Axl that ends the video; this Axl has experienced the violence and other treats the city has to offer**.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that these women are “Queens of the Night,” but their dual roles of angel/whore do seem to emulate the dual role she played, and, as constructs of masculine fantasies, these angels are even more “unvoiced” than their predecessor. I plan to look into the constructions of femininity in other 80’s glam lyrics, especially those of female bands, in the not too distant future. Our fairy tales, it would seem, haven’t come particularly far.

*No one will be surprised to note that I find this one to be the most interesting.
**All of the band members appear in the “Story.” Slash, as I mentioned, is drunk on the street, and Steven and Duff appear in a room with Axl (who is consumed by TV) and a woman with whom Steven is sharing a bed. Now, exactly what the scence is meant to indicate is a tad unclear. Yes, it’s obvious what Steven’s getting up to, and Axl is having his breakdown, but WTF is Duff doing in there?
Edit to add:
***Well, glory be, I remembered why I keep calling her Susie. It’s the actresses’ name. Go figure.

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osbourne. New York: Verso, 1998.
Clement, Catherine. Opera, or The Undoing of Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1988.

One response to “Rock N’ Roll Fairy Tales

  1. Pingback: Be Here Now | Beautiful Disease

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